Overwhelming Support for Tollgate Village at Public Appeal

As I wrote in a previous post I attended and spoke at the Tollgate Village planning appeal last Thursday evening (12th January). I hadn’t planned to write up about the evening, but when I saw the coverage in today’s Daily Gazette I felt that their version did not accurately reflect the mood and tone of events at the meeting.

To briefly summarise events leading up to Thursday evening, the Tollgate Village plans were originally passed by the planning committee, then after a reshuffle of the committee they were thrown out. The Tollgate Partnership then launched an appeal as well as resubmitting their plans. The plans were thrown out again, so now the appeal process is underway and on Thursday evening residents of Colchester had their opportunity to speak in front of the government’s planning inspector Ken Barton. He will prepare a report for the Secretary of State to make a final decision in August.

As has previously been published in the Gazette, and its sister paper the Essex County Standard, there is overwhelming support in the town for the Tollgate Village development and the many benefits people feel it will bring the town, and this was very apparent at the packed meeting.

In the Town Hall’s Moot Hall 100 or so local residents had gathered to have our say, or just to watch others having theirs. Proceedings began promptly at 7.00pm and after a brief explanation from Mr Barton of how the proceedings would work I found myself first up to speak.  I talked of people flocking to Chelmsford, Freeport, Westfield etc because of the choice they offer, and how Tollgate Village would help provide choice and keep some of that money here in Colchester. I also stated that I was unhappy that Fenwick were allowed to be legally represented at the appeal. You can read the transcript of what I said HERE.

Councillor Gerard Oxford spoke and voiced his concerns that approving Tollgate Village would be to ignore correct process and the local plan, and therefore spoke against the development.

A member of the public whose name I didn’t catch, and Colchester’s UKIP secretary Ron Levy, who is also chairman of the Colchester Retail Business Association, also spoke against the development. Mr Levy was concerned about the effect the development might have on the town centre’s traders.

There then followed speaker after speaker making their support known, apart from councillors Dominic Graham (LibDem) and Tim Young (Lab). I’ll come back to them later.

A few highlights include:

Councillor Sue Lissimore (Con) told Mr Barton how the residents of her ward are sceptical about the reasons for the refusal of Tollgate Village.

Resident Charlie Palmer accused the council of being inflexible, cherry picking arguments to suit their narrative, and having lost sight of what the community needs.

Another resident, Jeremy Hagon spoke of the positive impact Tollgate Village would bring to the town and its economy and said he does not visit Colchester town centre often, preferring Chelmsford and Freeport. He cited the dirty streets and expensive parking amongst his reasons. He also made the point that it is cheaper to park at Heathrow Airport for three hours than in Nunns Road car park behind Fenwick for the same period of time.

You can read the full transcript of Mr Hagons’s speech HERE.

Mark Payne, resident and owner of a Tollgate based business, told Mr Barton that it wasn’t about Tollgate Village or the town centre, they can co-exist and both thrive.

Fellow business owner and resident Kim Adcock agreed and said the greatest threat to town centres was from supermarkets. She was also frustrated by the disappearing parking spaces in the town, with more recently lost in the remodelled Priory Street car park.

Resident Andrew Guest, who runs the Purple Dog pub in the town, also felt that Tollgate Village and the town centre had different appeals.

Scott Everest, a resident known to many online by his Twitter name Colonel Camulos and who has a son who is physically handicapped, gave a very powerful speech about the lack of access in the town centre for people with disabilities. These include a shortage of parking spaces and dropped kerbs, and St Marys car park being the only one in town with same level access. These are issues that Mr Everest feels the current Tollgate shopping centre does address and accused coalition councillors of not engaging with residents about such issues, with particular reference to the emerging local plan, and accused them of being ‘self-serving and professional politicians’.

You can read Mr Everest’s speech in its entirety here HERE.

A little over an hour late, at 8.07pm Deputy Council Leader Tim Young arrived. Unfortunately for him he missed his name being called by about a minute and would now have to wait until near the end of the meeting to speak. Mr Young didn’t seem at all pleased by this and sat in the front row with a face like thunder, glancing down occasionally to read his newspaper on his lap.

Colchester, and Essex County Council Councillor for Stanway, Kevin Bentley (Con) declared himself 100 percent behind the development and spoke about the need for infrastructure to cope with all the new homes that are being built, and are to be built, in the borough. Looking across the room at Mr Young this clearly did nothing to lighten his mood.

Councillor Chris Manning, Chairman of Stanway Parish Council, said his authority was 100 percent behind the scheme.

Brigitte Fraser, a resident who runs Simply Living, one of the town centre’s independant businesses, also spoke in favour of the development and the advantages it would bring to the town.

Councillor Fiona McClean (Con) echoed this and said that 82 percent of residents polled in her Stanway ward wanted Tollgate Village to go ahead and that the council is wrong to ignore them.

Tim Young then finally spoke and promptly ignored them, dismissing Miss McClean’s figures out of hand. He then spoke about the effect Tollgate Village would have, in his opinion, on the town centre’s thriving arts scene. He also made an interesting claim that Tollgate Village would stop people visiting Castle Park.

Fellow coalition Councillor Dominic Graham (Lib Dem) was up next and after using half his allocated five minutes to qualify his credentials and reasons for being there, as well as praising the council’s planning department to the skies, he then told Mr Barton how Freeport had destroyed Braintree’s town centre. Mr Graham isn’t from these parts so it would be interesting to know if he had ever visited Braintree before Freeport was built, but comparing Braintree town centre with Colchester is like comparing apples with oranges.

Tim Young left the meeting early straight after Dominic Graham had finished speaking.

The final speaker of the evening, before Kevin Bentley read out a written submission from MP Priti Patel within whose constituency Tollgate Village falls, was Pam Schomberg. Pam was born in a shop in Colchester and has lived in the town centre all her life where she still owns a shop – she’s also a close friend and former neighbour of my mum but enough about that – and she stated categorically that Tollgate Village would not kill the town centre. Pam blamed high business rates and parking charges for the town centre’s decline.

Pam was the third town centre business owner to speak for the development, and her speech perfectly rounded off the night, coming as it did from someone with lifelong and very personal knowledge of the town centre.

Council Leader Paul Smith’s name was called twice but he had not attended the meeting, nor had he sent a message to explain his absence even though had indicated during the afternoon that he would add his voice to the NO speakers. There was naturally quite an air of surprise at his non-appearance.

In total twenty-eight people spoke, five against the development, including the only member of the public opposed, and twenty-three spoke for it. Thirty people had registered to speak including Jon Manning, the former councillor who chaired the original planning committee that has approved Tollgate Village and voted against the planning officer’s recommendation to refuse planning permission. Sadly some of the thirty were beaten by the weather, and Jon Manning had to leave before he was callled to speak. I’m sure whatever he planned to say would have added a whole new level of exctitment to the evening.

Mr Barton must have got quite a shock at this level of support for a new development, usually people turn up at appeals to protest against them, not for them, but this showed just how much many people feel we are losing out on new infrastructure and facilities for residents whilst at the same time building thousands of new homes.

All we can do now is await the Secretary of State’s decision in August.

Simon Crow